It's getting hot out here: A look at heat on campus and how we stay cool

We can get by without a lot of things, but let’s be real — having air conditioning during a S.C. summer is non-negotiable for most of us. So what does it take to keep our campus cool when the morning low in June and July starts out at nearly 80 and afternoon highs can reach triple digits?

“We pump 45,000 gallons of chilled water around the campus every minute,” says Scott Cooper, an energy facilities supervisor in the university’s energy management department. “The Columbia campus is the size of a small town and probably half the mass of downtown Columbia, so it requires a lot of energy to keep it cool.”

251,834 million British thermal units of energy to be exact. Or 27.8 thousand tons of cooling, roughly what it would take to cool 7,500 average-sized homes. But never mind BTUs and tons — just put two ‘6s’ and a bunch of zeros after a dollar sign. It costs more than $6.6 million — nearly one-fourth of the campus’ annual utility costs — to maintain the cool.

Of course, cooling some parts of campus is easier than others. With buildings ranging in age from the 1805 (Rutledge) to 2014 (Darla Moore School of Business), the energy distribution folks can’t change that reality. But they do their best to maintain a large and complicated system that comprises four energy plants and 13 chillers.

As their name implies, USC’s chillers cool water to 42 degrees Fahrenheit before miles of underground piping circulate the cold liquid to building systems that extract the cold for air conditioning. The water returns to the chillers at about 55 degrees, and the cycle resumes. Each plant is zoned for a particular part of campus, but if one plant goes offline, piping valves are opened to allow the other plants to pick up the slack. That built-in redundancy — and close attention to maintenance of the chillers and other equipment — helps the energy folks keep things cool even under extreme heat and high demand.

“Chillers last about 25 years, but we take very good care of our equipment,” says Quinton Bolin, energy plant manager for the university. “We have a few that are 30 years old and still going strong.” Each of the four energy plants, which also use boilers to create steam for hot water and winter heating, is manned 24/7.

And if you think operating the chillers would be an ideal job in the summer (like working in an icehouse), think again. In addition to deafening noise that requires heavy-duty hearing protection, energy plant workers face inside temperatures that often top 100 degrees — even when it’s in the 80s outside.

But it’s all in a day’s work for the plant operators, who take only short breaks in small air-conditioned spaces and occasionally get a break from the sweltering temperatures while monitoring operations in the control room. Strategically placed fans help pull some of the heat away from the boilers in the summer and pull in cold air from the outside during the winter.

“I’ve been around boilers and chillers all my life,” says Todd Yarborough, an energy facilities supervisor who joined USC eight years ago. “It gets hot in here, but it’s not unbearable.”

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This story appears in the June-July edition of USC Times. The campus images in the gallery are outtakes from the photo essay “Heat Index,” and from the cover shoot for that issue. All photos were taken May 25 and 26 with the spot thermal camera typically used by Energy Services to inspect equipment for hot spots. Campus never looked so cool — or so hot.

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